Last month, Hillary Clinton announced her big $30 billion plan to restore economic prosperity, or at least stability, to American coal country. The initiative is Clinton's effort to mitigate the likely painful economic effects of the Clean Power Plan, the Obama administration's energy initiative that relies heavily on reducing the country's dependence on coal power (which Clinton supports).
The Clinton campaign briefing outlines her philosophy simply: "Hillary Clinton is committed to meeting the climate change challenge as President and making the United States a clean energy superpower. At the same time, she will not allow coal communities to be left behind—or left out of our economic future."
Despite the fact that it hasn't yet been enacted, the Clean Power Plan is already drawing harsh words from coal industry executives and politicians who represent coal-dependent regions. "These are Kentuckians who just want to work, provide for their families and deliver the type of low-cost energy that attracts more jobs to Kentucky. And coal is what allows so many of them do all that," said Kentucky congressman Mitch McConnell, who is leading the effort to block the plan's implementation with a Congressional Review Act resolution.
The Clean Power Plan makes a convenient scapegoat for coal country's economic woes, but the U.S.'s coal industry has already been in decline in recent years. There are a variety of reasons for this: continuous scientific findings into its negative environmental impacts; the drop in price of natural gas; and the fact that renewable energy sources, once an expensive pipe dream, are quickly becoming more competitive. (Some recent estimates indicate that the solar energy industry now employs more American workers than the coal industry.)
"I think it's fair to say we haven't been able to figure out what to do for the dislocated workers."
In certain regions of the country, however, coal remains the dominant industry. According to the Energy Information Administration, 80,396 people were still working in coal mines in 2013. The bulk of those jobs are in the already economically challenged Appalachian region—states like West Virginia (20,281 workers), Kentucky (12,905 workers), and Pennsylvania (8,382 workers). Tens of thousands of additional workers are employed in related fields, like transportation and power plants. Coal mining jobs are also much better paid than others in the region. Coal mine workers earn more than twice the state average in West Virginia, for example.
Clinton's plan calls for infrastructure investments, health and education funding for the region, economic development incentives, and—every politician's favorite solution to evolving economic realities—job re-training programs for recently laid off coal miners. But if history is anything to go by, it's unlikely that re-training programs will do much good for the tens of thousands of coal workers who are likely to lose their jobs in the coming years, regardless of who is elected in 2016.
Although globalization has painfully—and visibly—increased the rate of job loss in the U.S., the erosion of "good American jobs" is not a new phenomenon. Neither are federally funded job re-training programs.
Between 1948 and 1956, employment in "goods-producing industries dropped from 45.0 percent to 41.5 percent," according to estimates from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In response to the increasing automation of factory work, President Kennedy signed the Manpower Development and Training Act of 1962, the first major modern-era federal job re-training program, targeted at dislocated workers whose jobs had been lost to "automation."
In the intervening 50 years, a variety of training programs have emerged to assist dislocated workers. These programs are politically popular and generally enjoy bipartisan support. After all, what politician, liberal or conservative, can't get behind an effort to help Americans get back to work?
Unfortunately, most of those job re-training programs haven't been very effective.
"I think it's fair to say we haven't been able to figure out what to do for the dislocated workers," says Burt Barnow, an economist at George Washington University. "And it's kind of a puzzle because these are people who have worked, they generally have skills, they've had a long career."
In 2004, the Department of Labor funded a comprehensive, independent evaluation of the Trade Adjustment Assistance Program (TAA). The TAA, which was first established by the Trade Act of 1974, offers a variety of resources—re-employment services, job re-training, and financial benefits—to workers who have lost their jobs due to increased competition from imports.
The evaluation, which was conducted by Mathematica Policy Research and Social Policy Research Associations, tracked TAA recipients for a four-year period after job loss. It found no significant benefits from job re-training; training recipients reported similar employment rates and slightly lower earnings than a comparison group of workers ineligible for TAA benefits. (The picture was slightly rosier for younger workers, who were more likely to report comparable earnings and to have "caught up" to the earnings and employment rates of the comparison group's workers.)
"In the initial two years after job loss, the TAA participants were a lot more likely to be involved in training, and less likely to be working than similar workers who were not eligible for the TAA benefits," says Jill Berk, associate director of human services research at Mathematica. "At the end of our four-year period, we found that the TAA participants had pretty much caught up in terms of employment—their earnings were still a little lower than the comparison workers who had not been eligible for TAA services."
Berk points out that four years simply may not have been long enough to observe any positive effects, particularly given that displaced workers may not start training immediately after losing their jobs, and that training itself takes a while. The participants in the study who underwent training as part of their TAA package also finished up their training in the middle of the recession, which makes for a challenging labor market.
More puzzling, however, is that only a third of those training recipients ended up working in the field they had received training in, a finding which Berk believes suggests an important role for employers in the job re-training process.
"One of the big flaws in training programs starting in the '60s until around 2000 was we forgot that employers have to want to hire these people," Barnow says. "Instead of just training people for whatever the community college has the facilities for, we should be asking employers what they need, and training for those."
Job re-training programs like the type Barnow describes, in which training is designed and offered in partnership with one employer or a group of employers in the same sector, are still relatively new. A 2009 evaluation of three such programs, however, offers one of the few pieces of good news in the field of job re-training. Participants in sectoral job training programs showed significantly higher employment rates and earnings, and were more likely to work in jobs with benefits, than a comparable control group. These types of training programs form the basis of the current administration's reforms of the federal job training system.
"Essentially what we know about job training programs is they work best when the training is for a specific job or occupation for which there is clearly a demand in the labor market," says Carl Van Horn, an expert on workforce issues at Rutgers University. "And that is closely connected to the skills that employers define as necessary to be successful."
Van Horn's comment highlights a key vulnerability of job re-training programs: Even well-designed programs for dislocated workers won't work if there's no local demand for workers.
"If there are no jobs, it's not going to work—there's nothing you can train them for," Barnow says.
Clinton's briefing on her plan calls for "federal investments that help people to find good jobs without having to move." Realistically, however, economic development is a slow process. It takes time for local governments to woo new industries, and for companies to make the decision to relocate and build new facilities. If coal country does manage to re-invent itself, as former industrial towns like Cleveland and Pittsburgh have successfully done, it's unlikely to happen quickly enough to provide jobs for most of today's coal miners. And if the economy of American coal country is utterly decimated by the shuttering of the coal industry, there won't be any local employers hiring, no matter what kind of re-training coal miners receive.
Relocation is often the thorn in the side of job re-training programs. "That's one of the issues that always arises when you have a significant downturn in the fortunes of a particular industry or community," Van Horn says, "especially when it's isolated in a rural area."
"A lot of them have lung damage, so taking a lower-paying job that's indoors might make a lot of sense."
Recent trends in mobility are not encouraging. Residential mobility, particularly across state lines, has been declining since the 1980s, with a particularly pronounced drop over the last 15 years. Certain groups, particularly older workers, are less likely to move across state lines. That spells trouble for coal; the average coal worker in West Virginia is 55 years old.
"Relocation is especially difficult if you're talking about older workers," Van Horn says. "It's an extremely difficult choice to make because you're uprooting yourself from your community, your family, and you may also own a home that you can no longer sell for what you bought it for."
The TAA program that Mathematica evaluated, for example, did include a relocation allowance for workers who found jobs in a different area, but almost none of the participants relocated.
"Among the participants we surveyed, 1.7 percent used the job search allowance and 0.5 percent used the relocation allowance," Mathematica's Berk says. "In our follow-up survey, we found that 94 percent of TAA participants had not changed zip codes since their job loss. Among the small group that did move, almost all of them stayed within 50 miles or less."
It would be wrong, however, to write off coal country completely, or to underestimate the abilities of former coal miners. In a fascinating article in Matter, Lauren Smiley highlights an intriguing initiative in Kentucky to offer specialized job re-training to former coal miners in a well-paid, in-demand field that doesn't necessarily require relocating: coding. Smiley's piece focuses on BitSource, Kentucky's first Web development firm that was founded by the former owners of a land-moving company. BitSource is still new, and small—the first trainee class included only 10 former miners (out of 900 applicants)—but if the model can be scaled, miners might just have a shot at landing high-paying jobs without having to move or wait for a new industry to set up shop in Appalachia. Efforts are also underway to expand other tele-working opportunities in the region, although coding generally offers higher wages.
Coal mining, as Smiley notes, involves more than pure physical labor. Miners "calculate daily shock reports, operate complex machinery, and draft plans to get coal out of a mountain"—all tasks that make them better-suited to coding than one might expect. BitSource's coders underwent an intensive, 22-week training program (during which time they were paid $15 per hour, from federal funds). The start-up pieced together the open-sourced curriculum from websites like Lynda.com. BitSource is hoping to again train a new group of former miners early next year.
"Silicon Valley has shown that the digital economy doesn't have to be created in the same place that it's consumed," Smiley writes. "It can happen two hours from the nearest airport, in a place where building a new road requires sawing a mountain in half, by people who have different politics, accents and hobbies than the end-users."
Job re-training programs aren't the only way to help people recover from job loss, and most experts agree there are likely more cost-effective means of helping some dislocated workers, particularly the older population.
The TAA program includes a feature designed for older workers who chose not to undergo job re-training, but were able to find a lower-paying job: a wage subsidy. "I think it's an interesting alternative to job training for older workers that may not have the time to reap the benefits of training in a new occupation," Berk says.
Barnow, the George Washington University economist, points out that such a program might be particularly sensible for coal workers suffering the health effects of decades of coal mining. "A lot of them have lung damage too, so taking a lower-paying job that's indoors might make a lot of sense," he says. "The subsidy would help cushion that."
Perhaps most important, in Van Horn's opinion, is that displaced workers receive high-quality, independent counsel about the assistance options available to them, and the financial tradeoffs of each option, a service which the federal government has historically not done a very good job of providing.
"It's very bewildering to a person, especially to a person who's been working for decades and [has] only had very short periods of unemployment, and then all of a sudden they're back in the labor market," Van Horn says. "They haven't had to think about how you look for a job, or what government assistance is available. It's just not part of their life experience."